E. Donald McKay III Receives Presidential Award from the Eastern Section of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists

Dr. E. Donald McKay III, former Director of the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS)

Dr. E. Donald McKay III, former Director of the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS), has been awarded the prestigious Presidential Award from the Eastern Section of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) for his many years of service at the ISGS. The announcement was made by David C. Harris, chair of the Honors and Awards Committee, on August 6. Don and a second awardee, James C. Cobb, Director of the Kentucky Geological Survey, will be presented Presidential Awards at the Eastern Section meeting in London, Ontario, on September 28.

Don retired as Director of the Illinois State Geological Survey and as the 12th State Geologist of Illinois on May 30, 2014, after 38 years of service. He became Director in 2008 and was the first to serve the Survey after it joined the University of Illinois as part of the Prairie Research Institute. Don is a second-generation geologist from the Illinois oil patch (Crawford County), where his father, Ed McKay, was a prominent and respected Illinois Basin petroleum geologist. Don attended Hanover College, earning a B.A. (1971) in geology. He began work at ISGS as a student in 1971, completing M.S. (1975) and Ph.D. (1977) degrees in Quaternary geology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He joined the Survey’s Hydrogeology Section (1973) and became Assistant Geologist (1976). Don quickly became committed to teaming actively with hydrogeologists, environmental geologists, and engineering geologists to apply the understanding of Quaternary frameworks to solving technical and societal issues. This collaborative style has been the foundation of Don’s success throughout his research and administrative career at the Survey.

After completing his Ph.D., Don worked with a Survey engineering geology team doing large-scale tests of backfilling of abandoned underground coal mines to mitigate subsidence. This and his training in civil engineering at the University of Illinois led to Don’s appointment as Assistant Geologist in the Engineering Geology Section (1979). His stint there was brief, as he was soon recruited to work in the nuclear power and nuclear waste isolation industry, for three years characterizing the geology of nuclear power plant sites and evaluating hydrogeologic settings of nuclear waste isolation sites. Then ISGS pulled Don back to his “scientific and employment home.” Don jumped into the digital world early and became lead geologist for the implementation of GIS (1983) and head of the Computer Research Section (1985). He was promoted to head of the Geologic Mapping and Framework Studies Group (1993) and Chief Scientist (2000). 

Throughout his tenure, Don consistently shared his very early vision that Survey geologists be armed with powerful digital technologies and specialized geoscience software to effectively accomplish their applied research mission and objectives. Through his leadership in acquiring and developing digital tools and systems, and “going digital” for geologic mapping and interpretation, all in support of research, decision making, and policy development, he implemented that vision. Don fostered the creation of digital products and databases, enhanced computer mapping and 3-D visualization capabilities, and had all of the Survey’s publications scanned and posted online. He initiated open access to well records, seismic data, and maps. And more broadly, under Don’s leadership, the ISGS became the largest state geological survey in the nation, its national and international programmatic reach expanding widely.

With Don’s understanding of Illinois geology, its relevance and application, coupled with his administrative skills and integrity, the best interests of the Survey and of the State and its people have been in good hands.